Eric Clapton, ‘The Lady in the Balcony: Lockdown Sessions': Album Review
Even if you absolutely loathe the stance he's taken on vaccines and other COVID-19 protocols, who among us would turn down the opportunity to sit in a small room in a large English manor listening to Eric Clapton play? If we're telling the truth, nobody's raising their hands.
That sublime experience is exactly what's delivered with The Lady in the Balcony: Lockdown Sessions, a film and album release that ranks as a silver-lining counter to the past year and a half and gives proof to the adage that you can still enjoy the art even if the artist ruffles your feathers.
As its subtitle indicates, The Lady in the Balcony was born from the pandemic and concerts Clapton was forced to cancel at London's Royal Albert Hall. So he brought three of his key band members - bassist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd and keyboardist Chris Stainton - to Cowdray House to run through a set of 17 songs. The result is a sequel of sorts to Clapton's diamond-certified 1992 Unplugged session, albeit with him playing electric guitar on three of the tunes here.
And it's even better. While Unplugged was revelatory, it was still mannered as a broadcast show. This session has the easy feel of four friends sitting around playing music together, aware of but able to ignore the cameras and recording gear. The broad smiles and satisfied nods are genuine as they impress each other with instrumental nuances and subtleties, and "Tears in Heaven" is so lovingly rendered that Clapton is moved to put his right hand to his heart. And a buoyant "Believe in Life," the love song from 2001's Reptile, gives the album its title as Clapton dedicates it to his wife, Melia, who peeks in from an upstairs window.
Also among the abundance of highlights: a one-two tribute to the late Peter Green with "Black Magic Woman" and a beautiful "Man of the World"; a vibey new arrangement of J.J. Cale's "After Midnight"; a waltz through "River of Tears" that offers Clapton's best vocal of the performance; and a "Layla" that stakes a tempo middle ground between the original and the Unplugged version as Clapton references the signature riff during his solo. It's also nice to hear him reach back for "Bad Boy" from his 1970 solo debut album, and by the time the quartet hits "Got My Mojo Working," Clapton's three mates are all shouting the title refrain during the choruses. Being in such close quarters to Clapton might lead to an argument for some these days. But as long as the music is playing, and playing this well, much is right with the world again, and The Lady in the Balcony may just loosen those gritted teeth into a smile at some point.